July 15, 2013
By Steve Stone, Assistant Sports Information Director
When the final point was made against Florida State that ended yet another successful year in 2012, it was sort of a surreal moment for the program. Not only did the Seminoles finish the season with a sparkling 28-4 record and a second straight ACC title, they ended a four-year run put together by one of the most successful senior classes in school history.
Indeed, Dec. 1, 2012 was the final match for players Sareea Freeman, Duygu Duzceler, Fatma Yildirim and Marija Milosavljevic. Together, those four accumulated 109 victories, an NCAA National Semifinal run (2011), an NCAA Regional Final (2009), two second-round appearances and three ACC titles in four years. It's always part of the thinking process to wonder what's next for the program and which student-athletes will leave FSU Volleyball in good hands for years to come.
For someone like Nicole Walch, the recent offseason has proven that she is more than capable of shouldering the load and carrying the torch of on-court success that has reached unprecedented levels for the program. Florida State brings back some experience in the upcoming season, but the year could largely hinge on breakthrough performances by the program's 2012 recruiting class that featured four standout players and was rated third-best in the country by PrepVolleyball.com.
Walch, who plays with her older sister Elise and hails from Stuart, Fla., recently showed how much she improved this offseason at the USA National A2 Tournament in Dallas from June 29-July 3. She was a hitting machine representing Team Gold in the four-team field that featured some of the nation's best collegiate athletes.
"Playing in Dallas was an amazing experience," Walch said. "There was so much competition and it was great volleyball. Playing at a high level is a great way to get better and also having such experienced coaches was awesome."
Already in good volleyball shape when she first stepped onto campus after enrolling early in January 2012, Walch has only enhanced her physical condition this offseason. She has been relentless with her training and has added to her leaping ability that is so crucial for an outside hitter like herself.
"Training as hard as possible this offseason has really paid off," Walch added when asked what she has improved on most. "I think that I really focused on my defensive part of the game and really worked on getting quicker and improving my vertical by four inches."
As perhaps a wide-eyed freshman getting acclimated to high-stakes collegiate volleyball last year, Walch still provided a spark for Florida State while playing behind AVCA Honorable-Mention All-American Fatma Yildirim and Olivera Medic. She showed flashes of brilliance in finishing on the attack and seemed to develop more confidence in her passing that continues to get better.
One of those moments where she really grew up as a freshman came in hostile territory at Georgia Tech on Oct. 19, 2012. Down two sets to none, Walch entered the match in the third frame and helped blow open the set midway with two big kills and a block over a six-rally sequence. She punctuated the set by finishing off the Yellow Jackets with two kills in the final three points to cut the overall deficit to 2-1.
After helping the Seminoles win convincingly in the fourth set, Walch's inspirational play earned her the start for the all-important fifth set in one of the top atmospheres in the ACC. And she responded by showing no ounce of nerves, recording a service ace, a kill and a block as the Noles won the fifth set by a 15-10 margin.
It's those "rise-up" moments that she encountered last season that figure to help her push forward with momentum. The elite competition she recently faced while playing with USA Volleyball also shows she is ready to make that big step as a sophomore.
"I definitely think that competing against such top players in the collegiate level has given me some confidence but not going to stop me from working as hard as I can," Walch added.
Walch's participation in the USA Volleyball A2 Tournament not only betters her individual resume, but adds to the program lore that has been created by head coach Chris Poole. Since coming to Florida State in 2008, several of his players in Garnet and Gold have participated with junior national teams, national teams and other affiliations in playing against some of the best opponents domestically and worldwide.
Players like Walch and teammate Sarah Burrington, who traveled with the USA Women's Junior National Team to the Czech Republic, always help the stature and visibility of FSU Volleyball by partaking in big offseason events.
"Being able to represent FSU at the USA level is an amazing experience," Walch said. "It shows other schools that FSU is in it to win it this season and future seasons as well."
Walch would lead her team to a second-place finish in Dallas, taking on the offensive burden as the team's most efficient attacker. She made it clear what she wanted to work on heading into her important second year and proved after the tournament that those past weaknesses are slowly turning into strengths.
"I think that I just took a lot of time to focus on the things I needed to focus on," Walch said. "Going in extra hours to train was a big part of the offseason in order to get better."
As for the 2013 year, another demanding schedule has been put together by the FSU coaching staff that features a tough non-conference slate and the addition of three new ACC schools in Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pitt. The Seminoles virtually go a whole month without being home at the friendly confines of Tully Gym, where they haven't lost a match to an ACC school since Nov. 26, 2010 against Miami.
The high level of talent staring FSU right in the face doesn't deter someone like Walch though. She is ready to get what could be her breakthrough year started and has all the confidence in the world that this season's team is up to the challenge.
"I think that this year's team is working really hard and we're ready to push ourselves and see what we're capable of," she said.